He didn’t look down at Josva, didn’t need to. The boy had seen his face, had beheld the monstrosity of it. The chimp schnoz and serrated teeth, the beady eyes and protruding brow bone, the frizzy mane and blood-stained beard.
He returned to his seat and plunked down with a growl, looking at the boy upwards with a slanted gaze rather than directly. He was met with luminous eyes and cheeks mantled pink. The tears had ceased; likely frozen by terror.
“I used to be like you,” he said, voice like gravel as he swallowed back a lump. “Same age when me and my brother joined a Viking crew. Little shrimps we were, all lily white, missing mother.” He laughed. “But we learned. We became men. Never saw her again.”
“Where is the rest of your crew?” Josva asked, his voice stronger and clearer than Stian had expected. He seemed a rather brave little fellow now that the tears had dried.
Stian picked up his oars and rowed. “Gone, the lot of them. Banished me.” He narrowed his eyes. “Just a wanderer now.” A hideous wanderer, he might have added. Trapped in the body of a beast; face forever marred.
“Where is this brother, the one you spoke of?”
Fire tore through his veins but this time he suppressed the urge to attack.
He took a long and deep breath, waiting for the tingling in his arms and chest to subside. When he could finally answer without roaring, he spoke: “At the bottom of the sea.” He bared his teeth. “I killed him.”
Tears puddled in the boys eyes again, the pink fading from his face.
“What, you don’t like that answer?” His arms were tingling again. “You don’t like that I killed my brother?”
Josva blinked. “Didn’t you . . . love him?”
“I hated him.” He lifted his chin. “He pleased the gods. I could not. It was either survive on the crumbs that fell under his table—or take his table.”
Josva wiped his eyes dry with his sleeve. “Why not ask to sit with him at his table?”
“Never!” Stian jumped to his feet and tipped his head back, roaring without control; chest heaving up and down.
When he began to calm, he fell silent and stood in place, clenching and releasing his fists; breathing in and out through his nostrils while gritting his teeth. Josva sat stock still all the while, watching him with the eyes of a gentle yet frightened dove. Finally, Stian sat down and lifted the oars with a dignity he did not feel.
“We’ll reach our first destination in three days,” he grumbled.
His thoughts remained on his brother as he steered the boat: the wide-eyed shock when the harpoon pierced his brother’s chest one wintry night at sea. He’d stumbled backward a few feet and crumpled to the deck floor. By the time Stian reached his side he was already dead. Forcing his horror into stasis, he’d removed the arrow and hefted his brother’s body over the ship’s railing like a sack of potatoes. He leaned over the edge, wind and rain whipping at his hair, and watched his brother sink out of sight in the turbulent waves—those eyes still open in a fixed yet absent stare—the sight of one betrayed. And once his body was gone, swallowed up forever, Stian slowly turned to face his outraged crew mates, expecting them to do to him likewise. He hadn’t planned the murder, but in a fit of rage had released the harpoon with deadly precision. He was sick of competing with his brother and failing every time. Sick of being a shadow, always coming in second place. But now that his brother was dead, so far from being a sweet victory, Stian still wouldn’t be able to take his place—the crew would never stand for a traitor in their midst. If they didn’t kill him on the spot, he’d be banished for certain.
And banished he was.
They’d bound him hand and foot and in an act of mercy, left him on a secluded shoreline where he at least had a chance at escape.
Stian shook his head, chucking the memories and the horror that even after all this time, still remained in the dungeon of his subconscious. He had no intention of ever releasing it. But the image of those eyes, his brother’s wide dead eyes: would there ever come a day when he could close his own without seeing them?
The night was about as dark as it could get in these summer months of the midnight sun, the sun still smoldering on the horizon, suffusing the boy’s right side with an amber glow. The waters were placid with not much wind to push the sail, making propulsion slow-going and strenuous, the only sounds the occasional cry of a seagull and the distant splash of a minke whale rising to the surface for air. Stian rowed as needed, surmising the sleepy child from time to time, whose eyes were droopy. Of course he must be tired by now, they’d been at sea for two hours; but the more distance behind them, the better. He wanted to ensure that there was no chance of Josva being rescued.
A scent of salt and fish lifted on the breeze.
Josva’s head nodded forward and he snapped awake again.
“Go to sleep if you want—” Stian mumbled, his voice drowned out by sudden boiling to the left of the boat. Before he could react, the dorsal fin and slick charcoal body of a minke whale broke the ocean surface as the creature emerged from below. The sheer speed and force of it snapped the oar in half—the separated piece striking Stian’s jaw with hurricane strength. Everything went dark as the boat shook and a wave of water poured over the ship’s side, dosing the cargo and soaking the boy.
When Stian opened his eyes again, he couldn’t be certain how much time had passed, or what had happened.
There was a ringing in his ears and his last memory was of telling Josva to go to sleep. The first blurry blink revealed the boy leaning over him, peering into his face with round eyes and dripping hair. The next revealed a dusky sky and the top of the square-rigged sail, a seagull circling above it. He must be reclining. The third blink burned his eyes, the sky shimmering with dawn. He tried to sit up but could not, his head pounding and jaw aching, limbs like lead. He made an attempt to focus his vision but was unable. Nausea rose in his throat and he lolled to one side, vomiting on the boat floor.
A child leaned over him, dabbing his chin with a rag and offering him a sip of water from a waterskin. The stench of vomit overwhelmed him and he nearly barfed again, but managed to have a drink. The world seemed to shift around him.
“Hevel, is that you?” he asked, voice slurred and disembodied. He blinked but the child’s face remained blurry.
“It is I, Josva,” came the response.
He didn’t understand.
The light was too much and he squeezed his eyes shut; water lapping the boat startling him as though it were claps of thunder. “Hevel,” he said, “what has happened to me? Everything is . . . a fog.”
Was he dreaming? There was his childhood home, his mother in the yard, wailing, holding her shawl about her; one hand stretched out helplessly toward he and his younger brother, Hevel, as an armed Viking dragged the two terrified boys away from the village. His dear mother—oh how his heart had been shattered that day. It was to be a long time after that before he could sleep without tears wetting his pillow. Had she lived or died? He would never know.
The first few years the pirates had used the two brothers as slaves but eventually assimilated them into the crew as they developed into brawny young men. He learned to forget his gentle mother, to forget that he ever loved her. His heart hardened layer by layer, the fragmented pieces turning to stone; the numbness a welcome and soothing balm. He shucked his pain. Acquisition and standing became his focus and goal, ale and women a reprieve from the harsh seafaring life. His brother, whom he once leaned upon, a comrade those first few lonely years, became his rival as time wore on and more attention was given that golden boy than Stian could ever hope to receive himself.
A cold rag dabbed his swollen jaw, supplanting the memories.
Stian’s eyes fluttered open.
He sat upright with a gasp, holding his head in his hands until the searing pain subsided.
The sun was due south now and a breeze tickled the surface of the deep as his vision came into sharp relief. The splintered oar laid at his feet next to a pile of rags that had been used to sop up the vomit. He remembered the whale. Josva stood at the front of the boat with his back to Stian, partly obscured by the sail as he stared at the diamond-studded sea, dried hair glinting.
Stian looked down at his hands, at the coarse fur, padded palms and charred claws; digits elongated like a man’s. He reached up and felt his face, noting the same goose-fleshed snout, teeth so sharp he could bite off a finger, and the protruding eyebrows. Even his toes had claws, his whole body covered in wolf-like fur beneath his tunic and trousers.
Josva, evidently hearing his stirrings, turned around and made his way around crates and rigging until he reached his original seat beneath the mast. He sat down and watched Stian with expectant eyes. Though the day was warm enough, a hint of blue surrounded the boy’s lips. Had he caught a chill from getting doused by the whale during the night? Stian’s boat had never been hit by a whale before though he’d certainly had a few close calls over the years. Fortunately, the broken oar was the only damage to the boat.
“Why did you care for me while I was out?” he asked, baring his teeth a little. “You could have hefted me overboard and made your escape.”
“You were not dead.”
“Yes, but I am your captor. Don’t you want to be free?”
“I am free,” said the boy, “it is you who is not.”
Stian muttered under his breath and broke eye contact, somewhat nonplussed. Was it just that he’d been too heavy for the boy to lift? But then, when he’d awoken in the night it was to be offered a drink by an attentive child, a child who’d sat by his side for many hours as though genuinely concerned. There wasn’t a shred of evidence that Josva had made any attempt to dump him from the boat. He’d also cleaned up the vomit best he could with rags. But it didn’t make sense; why let your captor live? Stian looked down at his left boot where the leather-bound handle of the seax protruded. If Josva didn’t have the strength to heft him overboard, which was indeed probable, he could have at the very least killed him with the blade, pushed him onto the floorboards, and tried to row the boat home. Chances were he didn’t have the strength to row, being so young, but if the wind got strong enough, the sails would propel the boat for him and he’d need only to steer.
Yes, the child’s lips were blue, there was no denying it. Stian rooted through a crate until he’d found what he was looking for. A woolen blanket. He tossed it to Josva. “Put it on,” he ordered, “before you catch your death of cold.”
Josva took the blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders gratefully, smiling his thanks.
The smile might as well have been a blade to Stian’s gut.
A low growl escaped his lips and he glared at the child. Why did it enrage him so to look upon that face? He hated the dove-like innocence of it, the bright eyes whose torch had not yet been snuffed out by the suffocating realities of life. He was the picture of frailty, of a porcelain vase waiting to be smashed. Stian could snap him in half like a twig with his two bare hands if he wanted. He must see to it that the boy develop alligator skin and a curl to his lip. A scar or two would man up his face as well. That radiating heart was like a pearl nestled within a clam, a jewel that must be taken by a thief; just as his own once was.
The smile faded from Josva’s lips.
It occurred to Stian that he was still growling. He was making the boy uneasy, scaring him again.
Good, it would keep him in his place.
Though why did he so wish to befoul him? Hadn’t his own abduction ruined his life? Yet the instinct to treat this child likewise was as ravenous as a parched throat or an empty stomach. If he couldn’t have his own innocence back, why should Josva retain his? And if he couldn’t have his mother back, neither could Josva. Why should he have mercy when the one time mercy had been shown to him—by his crew mates when they’d left him tied up on a shore—it had been a worse punishment than death. He needed this boy to trade for him in the market places; if anyone saw Stian’s face and true form, they’d hunt him down like a wild animal and kill him, or take him prisoner. Without Josva as a slave to do his bidding, he’d have no choice but to retreat deep into the forest like an animal, living out his days in miserable solitude.
Yet Josva had shown him something more than mercy in sparing his life while he was incapacitated. He’d also vouchsafed an undeserved drink and a cold cloth to ease his pain.
Stian tossed the splintered oar overboard and retrieved a spare one, putting it into place. His head and jaw still ached from the concussion and he was weak with hunger, but he must resume rowing immediately. They’d been drifting a good twelve hours while he was out of commission and were greatly off course. He glanced over his shoulder with a start, half expecting a ship on the horizon. Surely Josva’s people were pursuing them by now, though hopefully in the wrong direction.
But there was nothing to see behind them besides swooping gulls and the edge of the earth.
Was the boy a fool for letting him live, or was he stronger than he seemed?
The picture of frailty, he’d been thinking. Perhaps not.
Stian rowed on and off as needed, silently eyeing the boy with suspicion as time dragged on, attempting to make sense of him. The blue had faded from the child’s lips and color had returned to his face. He no longer needed the blanket.
It was time he pulled some weight. “Make us some supper,” Stian ordered, pointing at a crate. “There’s stuff in there.”
A few minutes later he let the oars rest and accepted the bread and jerky Josva handed him. This time the child ate as well. They chewed in silence, each evidently wary of the other. It gave Stian a certain sense of satisfaction to see that the boy’s health had returned, but it also embarrassed him. His only reason for offering the blanket was to prevent the death of a slave; it would be too much work to abduct yet another child. Yet it had admittedly troubled him to see the child shivering. He felt protective, an instinct he hadn’t felt for anyone other than himself, as long as he could remember. Nevertheless, rage simmered just beneath the surface, a desire to tear everything in the boat apart and to roar at the top of his lungs.
Stian let out a ragged exhale and picked up the oars again. If only the wind would pick up so he could take a break. These oscillating emotions were nauseating. Or maybe it was the concussion. His arms were sore and his headache had grown worse, vision deteriorating again. He was overexerting himself, he knew, but what other choice was there? They had to keep traveling until there was no longer any chance of rescue.
The sun was beginning to set and the heavy net of dusk had settled around them again, the waters more Nile-green than ever. Soon the coast would come into sight. There’d been no further sign of the minke whale that had resurfaced next to the boat the night before.
“Go to sleep,” he said to the boy. “Get some rest.”
Josva took up the blanket again and was soon dozing on a wide crate.
Stian rowed on and on as the sun sunk lower and lower; the ebb and flow of his headache like waves of the sea. The midnight sun became an ember on the western horizon; the mast and rigging casting gaunt shadows across the cargo, the child, and the sail.
What was Stian to do when they reached their first destination? His face he could hide well enough in the shrouding of his hood, but his clawed hands no longer fit in any of his gloves. He figured he could wrap a shawl around them, but all it would take to ruin everything was for the boy to run up to the first person he saw and share his plight. When he first planned this abduction, he imagined a boy so timid he’d do anything he was ordered to do, just as he and Hevel had done; but this child had a strong mind. That much was clear now. Any mind could be broken though, he presumed. But it would take time, a commodity he did not possess.
His throat tightened as though being strangled.
It was desperation that had brought him to this place and desperation that was draining the life force from him. He was not going to succeed after all—the child would be rescued and he’d be dead.
But he already was.
He knew that now.
Death arrived when he was torn from the crook of his mother’s arm, and again when he murdered his own brother. The first act had bludgeoned his heart, the second his soul.
A wave of nausea rocked him and he dropped the oars, gripping his head in his hands and blinking rapidly. The pain in his head had grown too much, receding less and less now. The sky seemed to swoon, the breeze soughing in the sail. It was over. He didn’t have the strength to keep rowing. Sleep, he needed sleep. No, he mustn’t, they would catch up—catch him.
“Are you all right?” Josva asked, sitting up.
Stian struggled to focus on the boy’s ghostly face and fluttering hair, only to have his vision dissipate in fogginess.
“Don’t ask if I’m all right,” he yelled, heat tearing through his body. “You shouldn’t care how I feel—no one else ever did—why you?” He choked on a cry and roared some more, trying to stand up but losing his balance and falling back down to the bench. Defeated, he put his snout in his hands and sobbed.
No, he refused to spare this boy, it was not his way. The world had been cruel to him, he would be cruel to the world.
Stian lifted his chin, his palsied body going still with determination, the searing pain in his head dulling to an ache, and his vision clearing. The burning in his chest turned to a spreading ice and he bared his teeth, upper lip twitching as he peeled it back. Hatred welled in his eyes and Josva moved backward instinctively at the recognition of it, making an attempt to duck around the mast, but he didn’t move fast enough. Stian leaped forward and grabbed him by the shoulders.
“I won’t let them rescue you—” he spat the words in Josva’s face. “I won’t—you hear? I’d rather you die than go free!”
The child began to cry, eyes lambent with what could only be grief and dismay.
Stian held the boy with one hand and with the other grabbed a rope, tying the boy’s wrists together. He didn’t need a slave, he didn’t need anyone. He would retreat to the forest and wait there to die. Better than dying at the hands of another man.
His thoughts a violent muddle, Stian threw the child overboard and the splashing water doused his face, trailing down his cheeks and hairy chin in rivulets. He leaned over the edge and watched the boy sink into the verdant depths, just as Hevel had . . . but these living eyes did not haunt, they implored. Implored him to reconsider.
For a moment time seemed to slow to a standstill, the boy suspended just below the surface of the water—then the darkness below swallowed him up.
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